One yoga teacher weighs in on why you should bring up the challenges we’re all facing out in the world—think wildfires, news of sexual misconduct, political unrest, the list goes on—in your yoga classes.
As I write this, a cloud of thick smoke hangs heavy over the city of San Francisco due to recent fires. The sky is tinted an apocalyptic pink and the normally bustling streets have just a few bold souls hurrying along to the next shelter, air masks covering half their face.
Schools and many businesses are closed due to toxic air quality and as I sit here preparing for this morning’s class, I am not only planning my sequence, but how I will—or won’t—bring up what’s happening outside. Do I address it head on? Do I speak about it generally? Do I avoid talking about it altogether?
In our yoga community, negativity can be seen as, well, negative. Yoga teachers often avoid talking about the awful things happening globally in favor of encouraging students to focus on their own personal healing. Yoga class, retreats, studios, and meditation halls have become refuges from outer violence and uncertainty—a vacuum in which everything feels safe and alright. But things are not safe and alright. The country is divided. Planet earth is bleeding fires and crying floods. Just a few weeks ago, a shooter entered a yoga studio and killed two people.
As the world is changing, the teaching landscape is changing, too.
Yogis are looking to their practice and teachers for guidance and while I whole-heartedly agree that our classes should be safe-havens from the madness of the outside world, I have also grown to believe that these are the best places to learn how to handle that madness. Our classes are fertile training ground for showing students how strong they are and how strong we are as a community. How do we help people heal both personally and globally in challenging times?
I believe yoga teachers can use the outside world as teachable moments, without having to address specific traumas or political upset head on. Here are 8 ways to do just that:
See also You’re a Yoga Teacher, Not a Therapist
Speak globally, versus specifically.
It is possible to help students face struggles without going too deep into personal traumas. Use general words and speak to the internal effects versus the external turmoil. While the outside causes may vary, human responses are similar. We have all experienced sadness, hopelessness, anger, grief, and frustration, just as we have all experienced happiness, joy, elation, and surprise.
Los Angeles-based yoga teacher Nikki Estrada told me she steers clear of specific comments in classes that could potentially be polarizing and instead, addresses our challenging times more generally. “I’ll say things like, ‘We are so bombarded right now with all kinds of negativity and intensity and the yoga studio is a space to turn it off, go within, and fill our cups,’” she says. Using the words “negativity” and “intensity” versus a specific example allows students to interpret as it pertains to them, she says. “It is a delicate dance to acknowledge the collective challenge, but not dwell on it.”
Emphasize the power of healing as a group.
People learn by example, and group responses can be contagious. Think of the concepts of “mass hysteria or “group think.” Just as complaining together can heighten a group’s annoyance, breathing together can also calm the group down.
“If something is going on that is affecting virtually everyone in your room—meaning not just certain political or religious persuasions—and you are authentically feeling it yourself, it may be nice to set the tone gently as the students come in, creating space for their feelings and need for connection,” says Annie Carpenter, founder of SmartFLOW yoga. For example, on the morning of 9/11, Annie had her students make a circle, facing in so they could really sense the connection and support of community.
See also Connecting with Community
When in doubt, teach breathing.
We may have different viewpoints, different politics, and different bodies, but something that connects every single human being on this planet is the breath. “The best way to help your student is to help them breathe deeper,” says Jeanne Heileman, founder of Tantra Flow Yoga. “Breath is the link from the physical body to the mind. When we change the way we breathe, we change the way our mind is activating. Thus, you don’t have to say anything.”
Estrada agrees: “The most powerful tool I share with my students during challenging times is to focus on and regulate their breath,” she says. “Steady breathing leads to a steady mind and a steady yogi.”
Use asana to teach students about how they cope with challenge.
How we do one thing is how we do everything—and looking at how we approach challenge on the mat is a mirror for how we deal with it off the mat. For example, balance poses are a great place for people to face fear together without triggering specific experiences. Think about Tree Pose (Vrksasana). Standing on one leg has little to do with the lessons we are imparting, but it can show students how they respond when they’re scared. When the class explores this type of edge as a group, people are likely to tap into the kind of courage they’re seeking during hard times.
Yoga teacher Jeanne Heileman designed her entire 300-hour teacher training around this concept. “During times of fear and insecurity, teach postures connected to the Root Chakra,” she says. “These include long holds in Standing Poses. Guide your students to connect to the earth, and to feel how it is holding and supporting them.”
See also Elemental Yoga: An Earthy Sequence to Ground Vata
Empower students by showing them what they can change: their thoughts.
Practicing in an uncomfortable setting is the best place to learn resilience. To wit: The recent California fires provided a real-time opportunity for students to learn that while they may not be able to change their external circumstances, they can change their reaction to them. Helpless despair, enraged frustration, and acceptance are all choices—our choices. We can manage our experience through the power of our response. When our response is something harder to contain, like inconsolable grief, we can still change how we think about ourselves, practicing being kinder and more patient.
Political unrest, bombings, shootings, fires, and abuse are tremendously upsetting events. Other than trauma-specialists and therapists, many yoga teachers are not trained to help our students unpack that kind of trauma. How we can help is by holding space. By doing this, we’re not trying to fix or understand another’s trauma; we’re simply being present with someone and their pain.
Carpenter, who taught during the recent Northern California fires, says she held space in her classes by leading long, slow, flows that encouraged students to move more mindfully and hold poses longer, using lots of props for support. She also finished these classes with supported Legs-Up-The-Wall Pose (Viparita Karani) and Reclined Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana). “I traded some of the specificity I usually use in my instructions for words that encouraged grounding and support,” she says. “There was also more silence, and more gentle hands-on adjustments.”
See also 5 Ways to Create a Safe Yoga Space for Trauma Survivors
Help your students see how they are more similar than they are different.
Another powerful way to help people heal as a collective is how we begin and close our classes. Beginning and/or ending class by chanting Om is a way to link people together. Om is the omnipresent universal sound—the buzz of the world around us, the singing of the planets from space, the whoosh of the waves crashing against the shore, the breath of your neighbor. By repeating Om, we connect into this greater experience, harmonizing with the whole planet.
Encourage your students to share the benefits of their practice with the world.
While yoga may be an inside job, it has great external reverberations. The better we feel, the kinder we are. And that goodness pays itself forward. “The more we change on the inside, the more we have a positive impact on the outside,” says Estrada.
Carpenter often ends her classes by inviting students to offer the “goodness” of their practice back out into the world, closing with the words: “May we be grateful for the many blessings in our lives. And may all the blessings we receive be of benefit to all beings everywhere.”
As wellness professionals, we have the important task of grooming a spiritual army—to prepare people for the battle of uncertainty that is life. If we get caught up in the “me” of the healing, we risk losing sight of the “we.” And we heal most together.
See also Yoga Wisdom: How to Spark Your Inner Light + Share It with Others
About the Author
Sarah Ezrin is a yoga teacher in Los Angeles. Learn more at sarahezrinyoga.com.
7 Simple Ways to Call in More Joy—and Feel Less Stressed
It can be easy to get caught up in the non-stop “go” of life and lose sight of what brings you the most happiness. If you can relate, this emotional detox is for you.
Joy. It’s our most natural state. When we are in it, we feel light, effortless, smooth, confident, and free. What makes joy so powerful is its purity. It is an unfiltered state of unconditional love. Joy is abundantly and effortlessly alive, yet we let so many things—frustrations, mishaps, fears, anxieties, unhealthy relationships, and past experiences—taint it. These emotions are not toxic, but the way in which we have conditioned ourselves to respond to them is—that’s what I call reactivity.
Here is the thing: we are born with emotions; reactivity is what we learn. Raw emotions are like nutrients, reactivity like toxins. No one comes into this world with denial, expectations, the urge to gossip, guilt, doubt, and insecurity—these are reactions reinforced by how we interpret and respond to our feelings. Our spirits want to stay in sync with joy and avoid disconnection, but joy can be stripped from life at times when we most want to connect with it—like now, during the holidays.
See also A Meditation Practice To Let In Joy + Happiness
Like a food detox, an emotional detox leaves you feeling energized, clear, and fulfilled; it cleanses the pathway for new habits and behaviors, and lays the groundwork for connection, happiness, and love.
How to Do an Emotional Detox: 7 Simple Steps
These tips will help you let go of stress and tap into your own joy. The best part? You can do them all today.
1. Up your turmeric intake
Turmeric is a warm spice that’s high anti-inflammatory properties. Besides finding it in the spice aisle, you can also find it in the form of a supplement. It is used as a natural medicine for conditions such as headaches, arthritis, fibromyalgia, itchy skin, and more. Turmeric, to me, is an essential yet affordable way to support your detox. Try adding it to soothing herbal tea (non-caffeinated teas such as elderberry and peppermint ease digestion, while ginger and saffron can help ease tension and promote emotional balance), spicing up salads, or simply take it in the form of a supplement.
See also 10 Ways to Love Yourself (More) in the Modern World
2. Use your heating pad
By placing warmth on your abdomen or heart, you can help calm down and soften resistance of your emotions. Heat increases blood-oxygen and circulation, detoxifying the area being treated. I love to use aromatherapy heating pads for a bit of extra therapy. Try using one to detoxify your neck, feet, and hands, and even face and forehead.
3. Incorporate crystals into your practice
Crystals can be a conduit for healing because their properties can increase the flow of energy in your body as well as within your environment. Crystals can ward off negativity while promoting relaxation. If I know I am entering a heavy or possible toxic situation, I tend to put some crystals around my neck or in my pockets. A few essentials are selenite (for clearing negativity), rose quartz (the crystal of unconditional love), and kyanite (for decreasing our resistance). Meanwhile, crystal elixirs (made by infusing water with the healing energies of crystals) can help move you through stuck emotions and patterns. Stones work deeply and permanently in our subconscious level of being and have the capacity to move energy on many levels, even upgrade our DNA.
See also 6 Steps to Use Crystals in Your Daily Routine
4. Try sound therapy
Sound therapy is a form of vibrational medicine. It is often created with instruments such as tuning forks, singing bowls, and gongs and found in wellness and healing centers. Personally,
I prefer the healing sounds of crystals bowls. My husband and I have attended a few crystal bowl circles together. We both found it powerful to lie on our yoga mats next to each other, holding hands, as the vibrations penetrated our bodies.
5. Practice alternate nostril breathing
This technique helps you deepen your breath, reaching the depth of your lungs. Begin by sitting up tall, either crossed-legged on the floor or in a chair. Gently press your shoulders back and down. Place your chin parallel to the earth. Soften your eyes. Take the thumb of your right hand and close off your right nostril so that you’re exclusively breathing out of your left nostril. Breathing from your lower abdomen, begin to inhale slowly (inflating the sides of your waist) to the count of three. Pause at the top of the inhalation for one count, then exhale out of the same nostril, pulling in your navel to the count of of four. (Make sure your exhalation is one count longer than your inhalation.) Pause. Then using your right hand again, close off your left nostril with your ring finger. Repeat the same count on this side. Repeat this exercise three to four times, and notice how relaxed and open you become.
See also Looking for an Emotional Detox? Try This Sequence from C.L.E.A.N.S.E. Yoga
6. Change your pillow
Replacing your pillow can give you a surprisingly fresh start. When you sleep, you release the stress from the day. Your pillow and mattress are two places you discharge a ton of negative energy. I once had a client who tossed her entire mattress after getting a divorce to dispel old, trapped negative energy.
7. Exercise your olfactory system
Using essential oils in a diffuser or on your skin can help you relax and feel more balanced. So long as the oils are non-synthetic (organic), using scents is one of the quickest ways to activate the calming centers of your brain. Certain scents have been proven to calm organs such as your heart, liver, and intestinal tract. Lavender is known for its soothing properties, while the scent of sandalwood can help you get grounded.
See also 5 Essential Oils Combos That Smell Better Than Your Favorite Candles
Excerpted from Emotional Detox: 7 Steps to Release Toxicity and Energize Joy by Sherianna Boyle. Copyright © 2018 Adams Media, a division of Simon and Schuster. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
Slow Flow: Learn to Live from Love with a Brahma Vihara
Take a few minutes to dedicate each practice to love and watch what begins to shift.
Ready to move deeper into vinyasa and build a practice that supports you for decades to come? Start today with Slow Flow: Sustainable Vinyasa Yoga for Life, designed by Cyndi Lee, renowned yoga teacher and founder of OM Yoga. This six-week online course will refine your approach to vinyasa yoga through creative asana sequences, essential modifications, dharma talks in mindfulness, and much more, so sustainability and precision are top of mind every time you flow—now and in well into the future. Learn more and sign up today!
Words carry intention and plant seeds. That’s why taking a moment at the end of your asana practice for this dedication could start to shift things in your life. This practice called Brahma Vihara, which translates as “abode of the gods” or “abode of the heart,” is not to be confused with prayer. It’s shared by several eastern traditions and can be used as a prescription for living from the heart. In this video, you’ll learn the dedication and how to interpret all four of its parts.
A TCM-Inspired Home Practice to Ease Holiday Stress
This 12-pose sequence will help you remember what the season is really all about.
’Tis the season of good tidings, peppermint mochas, and gatherings with friends—and also lots to accomplish (gift-giving anyone?), people to accommodate (hello, Aunt Erma!), and more than likely, weeks of over-extending ourselves.
And while all of this busy-ness is due to a truly wonderful time of year, it’s important to get clear on what “stress” actually entails.
See also Ready to Let Go? A TCM-Inspired Sequence for Fall
The Physiology of Stress
When we are in high gear, plowing through a long to-do list to get stuff done (read: we’re stressed!), the body turns on the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), otherwise known as the fight-or-flight mode. When the SNS is turned on and we’re under perceived stress, it triggers energy to be released, allowing the body to fight or take flight.
By activating the SNS, the energy is directed to prioritized systems to fight or flight and takes energy away from (or shuts down) non-priority systems, such as the immune, digestion, and reproduction systems. This is why some people are more prone to illness, digestive upset, and for women, menstrual irregularities during or after stress.
The SNS’s counterpart is the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS), or the rest-and-digest mode. When the PSNS is activated, the body conserves energy and turns “on” all down-regulated systems.
So, how can you activate the PSNS? By stimulating the vagus nerve: the longest cranial nerve that interconnects the brain to many organ systems and runs through the back of the throat and through the diaphragm.
Pranayama and Yoga are primary ways to access the vagus nerve, because the breath has the capacity to stimulate the vagus nerve through the back of the throat (hello, Ujjayi breath!) and diaphragmatic breathing (a.k.a. belly breathing). By stimulating the vagus nerve, we increase our vagal tone and turn on the PSNS, ultimately counter-balancing the stress response.
See also 8 Detoxifying Poses to Boost Digestion of Holiday Feasts—& All That Seasonal Stress
Interval Yoga: The Ultimate Counter to Stress
Interval Yoga is a combination of heart-pumping, timed movements interspersed with strengthening flows. The dynamic change between increasing heart rate and space for the heart rate to slow is great for a few reasons:
- Research indicates interval training may lengthen telomeres by increasing activity of the enzyme telomerase. Telomeres are the ‘end-caps’ on chromosomes (DNA that carries our genetic information) that protect the genetic information and prevent cell aging. Every time a cell replicates, the telomeres become shorter, eventually leading to cell death when the telomeres have been “used up.” By increasing telomerase activity to add telomere length, we are essentially adding longevity to our cells—and therefore ourselves.
- In Traditional Chinese Medicine, winter is the energy of yin within yin—and yin equals cold, rest, and non-movement. To counter-balance all of this yin energy, we will add yang energy (heat and activity) through movement and blood-pumping intervals.
- In TCM, stress affects the energy of the liver, creating Liver Qi Stagnation. One of the liver’s functions is the free-flow of energy throughout the body and to all organ systems. Which means stagnation here can feel like constriction in the body, neck and shoulder tension, constipation, irritability, and being quick to get angry. The best remedy for liver Qi stagnation is movement. Moving the body and getting the blood flowing will move the liver Qi to alleviate the above symptoms.
A 12-Pose Home Practice to Counter Holiday Stress
The Holiday season is about giving to others—our time, presence, presents, and energy. That’s why it’s especially important to make this practice about giving to yourself. Create a space that feels supportive to you: play music that feels good for movement; light a few candles; diffuse your favorite essential oils; and set an intention to nurture you.
Also, keep in mind that you can customize how fast or slow you move based on your energy levels. Please, honor your body and modify this sequence to fit your needs.
See also Slow Flow: 4 Tips to Polish Your Step-Forward Transition
About our author
Teresa Biggs, AP, DOM is a board-certified Doctor of Oriental Medicine and Yoga Medicine Instructor and founder of Biggs Acupuncture & Wellness Center in Naples, Florida. Learn more about Teresa at biggsacupuncture.com.
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